Roosevelt, Theodore (1858 – 1919) American Politician and Conservationist

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Theodore Roosevelt (1858 1919)
American politician and conservationist

Historians often cite conservation of natural resources as Theodore Roosevelt's most enduring contribution to the country. As the nation's twenty-sixth President, Roosevelt was faced with critical conservation issues and made decisive moves to promote conservation, thus becoming the national leader most clearly associated with preservation of public land .

Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family in New York City, and early took an interest in the outdoors, partly to compensate for asthma and a frail constitution. He was an avid naturalist as a child, an early interest that lasted all his life and, as Paul R. Cutright documents in detail in his Theodore Roosevelt: The Making of a Conservationist, Roosevelt was instrumental in creating a role model for conservationists. Certainly, much of his attention to conservation derived at least in part from his interest in the natural science that underlay those issues.

He was, for example, a life-long bird watcher and relished the fact that he could match John Burroughs's prowess at identifying birds on a field walk with the naturalistwriter. Roosevelt's interest in the natural history of birds and other animals provided much of the motivation for two long and perilous trips taken after his presidency to South America and Africa, trips that compromised his health and may have shortened his life.

From a very young age, Roosevelt was also a politician. At the age of 23, he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1881. Always contradictory, the young Roosevelt was conservative and pro-establishment but was also a reformer, anticorruption and anti-machine politics.

As governor of New York (18981900), Roosevelt defined and tried to act on conservation issues. In 1900, Gifford Pinchot helped Roosevelt formulate his message to the New York State Assembly about the need for forest management . The Governor also tried to outlaw the use of bird feathers for adornment. Historians claim that his actions so alarmed the Assembly that he was "manipulated" out of the governor's mansion into the vice-presidency, from there he became President after William McKinley's assassination.

Roosevelt's contribution to conservation can be divided into four categories: first, his role in setting aside and managing what are now called national forests; second, his decisive initiation of a national wildlife refuge system; third, his impact on transforming the arid lands of the American West into irrigated farmland; and, fourth, his efforts to promote natural resources nation-wide.

Roosevelt is best known for his collaboration with Pinchot in appropriating public forest lands once controlled by private interests and "reserving" them for "our people unborn." Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act (authorizing the Presidents to create forest reserves from the public domain) in 1891, well before Roosevelt took office. The three Presidents immediately before him established forest reserves of some 50 million acres (20.3 million ha). Roosevelt publicized the value of forest reserves to the people; and reorganized management of the reserves, placing them under the Bureau of Forestry (later the Forest Service ) in the Department of Agriculture. Increased the acreage in reservesby 150 million acres (60.8 million ha), 16 million (6.5 million ha) of which were set aside almost overnight in a famous and successful action in 1907 by which he and Pinchot worked long hours to create the reserves before the President had to sign a congressional act with a rider limiting his powers to do so. All of these actions remain controversial today. The Forest Service's timber management policies are still being criticized for catering to special interests, and not realizing Roosevelt's goal to preserve the forests for the people, not powerful private interests.

The story of Pelican Island illustrates perhaps better than any other incident in Roosevelt's administration his approach to conservation issues. Visited by naturalist friends alarmed at the decimation of birds on Florida's Pelican Island, Roosevelt asked if the law prevented him from declaring the island "a Federal Bird Reservation." Told that no such law existed, the President responded, "Very well, then I so declare it." During his tenure, Roosevelt created 50 additional wildlife refuges. His enthusiastic initiation of these preserves provided a base for the extensive national wildlife refuge system.

Roosevelt entered the Presidency with the idea that the western drylands could become productive through irrigation . He realized, however, that the scale of such projects prohibited private enterprise from undertaking the task. One of his first initiatives was to work with congressmen representing western states to pass the Reclamation Act of 1902. Sixteen projects were soon initiated in those states. Reclamation from Roosevelt's point of viewespecially large damsare considered a mixed blessing by many conservationists today.

Roosevelt, was a natural publicist and, along with Pinchot and John Muir , he provided an extraordinary legacy to the American people of a variety of lands and resources in public ownership. Roosevelt used the Presidency's "bully pulpit" effectively to arouse public interest in conservation issues. Harold Pinket argues that Roosevelt's main contribution to the conservation movement was "wielding his presidential prestige to craft a coalition of people with otherwise opposed perspectives on natural resources, from naturalists and civic leaders who favored preservation to utilitarian resource specialists and users." No accomplishment illustrates this better than the Governor's Conference of 1907. At this conference Roosevelt bought all the nation's governors and many other leaders together and, using his own enthusiasm for conservation, he ignited discussions, policies and actions that resonate still today at many levels of government.

Roosevelt's concern for conservation was reflected in his message to Congress, delivered two months after becoming President. It contained strong references to all the relevant issues of the timepreservation and use of forests, soil and water conservation , wildlife protection, recreation , and reclamation of arid lands. He is still recognized for his leadership on these areas. In addition to his concern for conservation issues Roosevelt was a widely published author. Many readers can still be entertained by vivid accounts of hunting trips in the west or his life as a rancher in the Dakotas.

Most environmentalists pay strong tribute to Roosevelt's accomplishments as a conservationist and his contributions to the conservation movement. However, he is not universally admired. Some view Roosevelt as an elitist while other criticize what some consider his excessive slaughter as a hunter. Outright defends Roosevelt, arguing "it was only after Roosevelt put the full force of his power as President behind the conservation program that it got off the ground." Theodore Roosevelt's energy and bluster, his cultivation of well-known naturalists and conservationists, his willingness to listen to and act on their advice, his political skills in getting policies enactedall those endure in a lasting legacy of national forests, a national wildlife refuge system, a strengthened national park system, and increased and ongoing awareness of the importance of protecting these for future generations . His words still ring true today, that "any nation which...lives only for the day, reaps without sowing, and consumes without husbanding, must expect the penalty of the prodigal." A very verbal leader, Roosevelt often had the last word: "For the people...must always include the people unborn as well as the people now alive, or the democratic ideal is not realized."

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Brooks, P. "A Naturalist in the White House." In Speaking for Nature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Cutright, P. R. Theodore Roosevelt: The Making of a Conservationist. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985.


Ponder, S. "Publicity in the Interest of the Public: Theodore Roosevelt's Conservation Crusade." Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (Summer 1990): 547555.

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Roosevelt, Theodore (1858 – 1919) American Politician and Conservationist

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